Urban Tribes: A scathing book review

A potentially important sociological trend is developing — more and more people are deferring marriage until later and later in their lives. The period between “college” and a “new family” continues to grow wider. Likely the product of the social and civil reforms of the 60s and 70s, this large sector of single, college-educated, professionals deserves study; it could have significant impact on a society and an economy that are geared more towards marriage and raising families. Somebody should write a book about this emerging force, who they are, where they came from, and where they’re going.

Unfortunately, Urban Tribes is not that book. I first wrote about urban tribes almost a year a half ago, when I came across a web site promoting the book, which was then very much a work in progress. My post inspired some discussion in the comments. A couple of months ago, the book’s author, Ethan Watters, emailed me, having stumbled upon my blog post, and asked if I’d be interested in reading an advance copy of the book. I said yes.

Considering such interest and generosity, I was really hoping to like the book. However, I cannot in good conscience recommend it. The book’s one strength is calling attention to an important emerging trend. However, Ethan’s handling of the topic left me very disappointed.

The bulk of the book is a pastiche of Ethan’s memoir about his own urban tribe and anecdotes from people who wrote to him about their urban tribes. Both the memoir and the anecdotes are dull, and their suitability for this topic are questionable. If you’re writing about an emerging social trend, you’ve got to get beyond individual’s stories and relate the underlying patterns and data that support your thesis.

If you’re going to take the memoir and anecdote approach, then you better have some riveting tales to tell. The prose in Urban Tribes is slack, whether it’s Ethan navelgazing about his experiences in an urban tribe (okay, fine, you were known as being a dating disaster, let’s move on), or the superficial anecdotal quotes from those who wrote to him. I

Also, when addressing a new concept, it doesn’t hurt to define what it is that you’re talking about. I now know about Ethan’s trips to Burning Man, but I still haven’t read a satisfactory definition of an urban tribe.

Sprinkled around the edges are brief mentions sociological data about urban tribes, and some references to academic researchers who say stuff that he thinks is interesting in the light of urban tribes. Such allusions carry little weight, so I left the book wondering if Ethan has spotted what is truly a significant trend, or if it’s just a small vocal group of people who think their particular life situation is f-a-s-c-i-n-a-t-i-n-g.

I guess what upsets me most is this book seems lazy. His work biography says he’s a magazine writer, but I guess that’s not the same as a journalist. The bulk of his information comes from his own uninteresting life or from stuff emailed to him. His few attempts at getting out there, such as when he flies to Philadelphia to witness an urban tribe, fall flat when he realizes there’s little he can draw from his observations.

Where the book most shamefully falls down is placing the “urban tribe” within any larger context of social trends. The urban tribe is likely a result of social changes of the 60s and 70s. I would guess that the burgeoning equality of women is the paramount influence. In addition, the American economy has evolved such that it’s economically more challenging to be married with kids. In the past, a single wage-earner could buy a house and support a family. Nowadays, both parents must work to keep up. Faced with such a prospect, is it no wonder that folks aren’t rushing into such a costly lifestyle?

Ethan offers no sociological perspecive though, instead just returning again and again to the notion that “in the past” we were “supposed” to get married right out of college, and these days we don’t seem to be doing that.

And, regrettably, there’s no looking forward. What does the larger group of “never-married”s mean to a society that promotes marriage? What are the economic implications of larger numbers of successful careerist singles, earning sizable salaries with no one to spend it on but themselves? Don’t look to Urban Tribes for any answers.

If this critique is harsh, it’s because I think a rich and worthwhile opportunity has been summarily wasted. This topic needs a journalist, or a sociologist, someone to dig through the data, the research. Someone to conduct their own studies to probe unanswered questions. Someone to situate this within other parallel social trends (fewer children per family, growing numbers of the aged, etc.). Someone to explore, ethnographically, the makeup of urban tribes, the roles within, and to relate the stories from these groups in a compelling fashion. I suspect that book is being worked on as I write this review. I look forward to reading it.

15 thoughts on “Urban Tribes: A scathing book review

  1. Where the book most shamefully falls down is placing the “urban tribe” within any larger context of social trends… his topic needs a journalist, or a sociologist, someone to dig through the data, the research. Someone to conduct their own studies to probe unanswered questions. Someone to situate this within other parallel social trends (fewer children per family, growing numbers of the aged, etc.).

    I think Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is the book that provides a larger context in which this work can be placed.

    Drawing his research from the DDB Needham Life Style surveys of 25 years, Putnam conclusively demonstrates the growing social disengagement of American society. While I haven’t a had chance to read the book [it's in my wish list], it seems quite certain that the above mentioned emerging force is part of that larger trend.

    The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the 20th century a powerful tide bore American into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago silently and without warning that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.

    Bowling Alone [Amazon]
    Companion website

  2. Breaking Up America: Advertisers and the New Media World by Joseph Turow is only on my wish list, so I can’t exactly recommend it. But it looks like it goes into some of the issues and gets good reviews. Definite slant towards the marketing side of things though. But the marketing world has a wealth of data on this sort of thing, so its worth exploring.

    Speed Tribes : Days and Night’s with Japan’s Next Generation by Karl T. Greenfeld is an excellent book, that sort of addresses the issue, and is both interesting and entertaining, but is journalism not academic. Be warned though, I read it a few years back, might be dated now.

  3. I have wanted to like books about these sorts
    of topics, I really have. But they’ve all fallen far
    short of the mark for me. Bowling Alone, as
    mentioned, is the best shot, but it is beginning
    to be feel oddly dated despite its conclusions
    being primarily related as long-term trends…
    and I think that it misses the mark to a certain
    degree. There was a book (its name escapes
    me) written a year or two afterward that rebuffs
    a lot of the positions put forward in Bowling
    Alone. It was also a bit academic and
    meaningless… mostly saying that the metrics
    used for Bowling Alone can’t be expected to
    show continued public engagement.

    Then came David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise.
    And now this Tribes book. I’m very sad to hear
    how anecdotal the book is. That’s not very
    interesting to me.

    [[ replies or followups should cc to my email,
    because i'm not a frequent site visitor (this is
    my first visit) and I dunno if i'll check back ]]

  4. Funny – your posts always come at the right time. This fall I’m working on a person-centered ethnography that looks at the cultural influences on late-20s/early 30s women who are making (or not)their “life” decisions later. I’ll let you know if I come across anything interesting.

  5. Peter, while I respect your opinion about my book, I have to remind you of one important fact about your critique: I am rubber, you are glue. It bounces off me and sticks to you.

    This is an important context for your comments that I think your readers are missing.

  6. I too would like to read the book you describe, Peter.

    Another one sort of tangential to this genre is Cultural Creatives which I got part way through and then set down, probably never to return to. Did you read that one, Peter?

    And happy birthday, by the way. :)

  7. For those who didn’t click on “Ethan Watters” and go to Watters.com, it’s a bridal store. So it’s unlikely that commenter was Ethan Watters.

  8. Hm, I should read Bowling Alone, so I can discover Putnam’s opinion of our present lifestyle.

    > but a few decades ago – silently and without
    > warning – that tide reversed and we were
    > overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without
    > at first noticing, we have been pulled apart
    > from one another and from our communities

    Guess I don’t have to. A treacherous rip current? And this guy conducts surveys for a living?

  9. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is a bit dated, but I do recommend his new book, Democracies In Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital In Contemporary Society.

    On Ethan’s book (and, as disclosure, he, Po Bronson and I were in a writer’s group together during our pursuit of MFAs in creative writing), I think, Peter, that you raise some very good points while assuming that the word “journalist” and writing a book that is largely observational equate to the same function. It is the reflective effort Ethan put in that should be measured, and I think it is wanting. On the other hand, I am not so sure this is really a trend or sociologically important, as these “tribes” exist in many contexts, not just close proximity or among singles. There are many instances of small-group ties in society, such as among young parents who are removed from their extended families, and the lengthening of lifespans suggests that there will be a longer period of singleness on average as a simple demographic result.

    We’ve been watching an “urban tribe” on TV for 10 years, in “Friends.” These groups may find themselves fascinating, but when a long-running sitcom describes their lifestyle, it hardly seems novel.

  10. Bogster

    The toilet sharing network.* Sorry, I know I should have grown out of this stuff 30 years ago, but it’s…

  11. I was thrilled to find your review and the Salon article ( http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2003/10/13/tribes/ ) on “Urban Tribes.” I’ve been reading the book and it makes me want to scream. Why I haven’t stopped reading is a testament to my own neuroses that I won’t go into here. Talk about milking an article for all it’s worth. I read the article when it came out in the Times Mag and I thought that even that was stretching, making something of nothing; nothing being, “Hey check this out. Straight white overeducated people in their thirties who aren’t married tend to hang out – wait, here’s the beauty part – in GROUPS!!!” I’m halfway through the book, and I find myself constantly shaking my head at the chutspah (the bad kind, not the good kind, E) he had to propose and then to write it, and that he and folks at Bloomasbury had to give it that pretentious pseudiosociopsychological subtitle and promote it as some kind of cultural study. But what else can you do when you’ve got a memoir without any juice and a study without any facts?
    “Urban Tribes” is a waste of invaluable trees, just as is, come to think of it, the yearly burning of a big man in the desert.

  12. Urban Tribes: Review

    So, here’s the first thing you need to know about Ethan Watters’ Urban Tribes – it’s not really about urban tribes. That’s not to say that he doesn’t spend a sizeable amount of time trying to flesh out the…

  13. Urban Tribes

    The first time I saw the term Urban Tribe was in a Meg Hourihan post about the book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment (book // website // blog) by Ethan Watters. It is an attempt to describe the social systems that …

  14. Do you categorically dismiss ethnography as a research tool?

  15. Of course not. I studied anthropology, and understand it’s value. I even wrote a post a bit back called, “Why Anthropology Matters,” and it’s all about the power of ethnography.

    But in no way is Watters’ work good “ethnography.” It’s not rigorous or deep. It’s shallow journalism and ho-hum memoirism.